Matthew Tkachuk: The season’s biggest surprise

Updated: January 11, 2018 at 1:20 am by Pat Steinberg

Calgary Flames fans were elated when Matthew Tkachuk fell to the team at number six overall in June’s NHL Draft, and for good reason. Tkachuk was coming off a banner season with the OHL’s London Knights, filled an organizational need for the Flames, and in his on-ice personality, brought the team something they didn’t have. I thought Tkachuk had a chance to make Calgary’s roster out of training camp, but by no means did I see him making the type of impact he has to this point.

Tkachuk has more than held his own at the highest level. In fact, being pummelled with some of the toughest ice time on the team, Tkachuk has excelled and has been one of Calgary’s best forwards. He’s been more effective than players like Johnny Gaudreau, Sean Monahan, and Sam Bennett, all of whom are further along in their NHL careers. What we’ve seen thus far from Tkachuk is outstanding and it sure does make you think just how could he could be in two or three years. So just how good has he been?

Usage

Tkachuk’s season started with him playing different roles and with all kinds of different linemates. Since game nine of the season, though, that’s normalized in a big way. Tkachuk has been playing steadily with Mikael Backlund and Michael Frolik since the end of October and has excelled on the left side of that trio.

When you consider the difficulty of minutes Backlund and Frolik play, common sense wouldn’t necessarily suggest using a rookie to complete their line. Over the last number of years, Backlund’s line has taken on the very toughest competition on the other side while being fed a ton of defensive starts. Conventionally, those situations are not ideal for a developing soon-to-be 19-year-old. Luckily for Calgary, Tkachuk is anything but conventional.

By the eye, Tkachuk hasn’t looked one bit out of place playing in those tough spots. Offensively he’s engaged every night, but that’s somewhat to be expected for a guy who put up 107 points in London last year. It’s the defensive side of the game where he’s surprised me, because he has looked as comfortable as anyone in his own end against some of the top players in the world. His underlying numbers support what the eye sees, too.

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Among regular players, not just forwards, Tkachuk has been the top possession forward on the team while only three players (Lance Bouma, Freddie Hamilton, and Hunter Shinkaruk) have seen more defensive starts than he has. To think his numbers are that good with the responsibility his line takes on makes that chart even more impressive. Both visually and analytically, Tkachuk has been one of the most effective forwards on the team this year.

Comparables

I’ll go about comparing Tkachuk to other players in a couple different ways. Let’s start by comparing Tkachuk through his first 19 games to what we saw from a trio of teammates who had rookie seasons one after the other. As you’ll see below, Monahan, Gaudreau, and Bennett all paled in comparison, at least on the possession side of things.

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Obviously this isn’t a perfect comparison, but it does show you how differently Tkachuk has been used in his rookie season in comparison to the other three. Now, possession isn’t everything and none of Monahan or Gaudreau benefitted from the “Backlund Bump” (although Bennett did on occasion). That being said, the impact Tkachuk has made at both ends of the rink is pretty staggering when taking a look at his Calgary contemporaries.

The other comparison route I went was looking at recent draftees playing his same position. I went back and looked at some of the higher scoring left wingers out of the last 10 drafts and took a look at their counting and underlying numbers in their first years. In terms of goals, assists, and points, Tkachuk doesn’t stack up as impressively when projecting his point totals.

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I projected Tkachuk at 78 games assuming he doesn’t miss another game this season; to date, he’s missed two for injury and two as a healthy scratch (which still seems strange). Tkachuk likely won’t have numbers as impressive as the players I compared him to in their first years, but that’s okay. None of the players above took on the responsibility Tkachuk has in his rookie campaign.

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Taking a look at those last two tables certainly makes you wonder what type of numbers Tkachuk could post if he was used in a more offensive role, doesn’t it? That’s not to say I disagree with the way the coaching staff is using Tkachuk, because I don’t. He’s helping the team generate shots and offensive zone time while helping suppress some of the best players in the NHL. That helps you win games as much as putting up more gaudy point totals does.

What do we think?

I won’t lie, I’m stunned at how good Tkachuk has been in his rookie season. My initial thought was he stays up for nine games, gets returned to the OHL, and really starts his professional career next season. I always believed Tkachuk would be a huge impact maker on this team, I just didn’t think it would be this fast or in this way.

But, how can you not be impressed? I don’t know if he’ll be able to keep it up all year, and neither does anyone else. He’s a rookie and sometimes walls are hit and effectiveness tails off a little. However, I’ve seen nothing in Tkachuk’s game that indicates a drop-off is coming anytime soon and while he keeps playing this way, he helps the Flames win.

In closing, here’s what really seals it for me: where would Calgary be without Tkachuk this year? It’s not a stretch to think they’d be worse off, which is scary knowing how the season has started.